Feathered friends are far from bird-brained

Monday 26 September 2011

Nest-building is not just instinctive but a skill that birds learn from experience, research suggests.

Scientists from the Universities of Edinburgh, St Andrews and Glasgow filmed male Southern Masked Weaver birds in Botswana as they built multiple nests out of grass during a breeding season. Their findings contrast with the previously held belief among scientists that nest-building is an innate ability.

The researchers found that individual birds varied their technique from one nest to the next, sometimes constructing the nest from right to left, and sometimes from left to right.  Also, as the birds gained more experience in building nests, they dropped blades of grass less often, implying that the art of nest building is learned rather than instinctive.

The Scottish researchers, together with scientists from Botswana, say their findings may help to explain how birds approach nest-building and whether they have the mental capacity to learn, or whether their skills are developed through repetition.

Researchers chose the colourful African bird because they build complex nests – a sign of intelligence – and also because they build many nests in a season. This allowed scientists to monitor differences between nests built by the same bird.

Dr Patrick Walsh of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Biological Sciences, who led the study, said: “If genetics was the only factor influencing how birds built their nests, you would expect individual birds always to repeat the same strategy. However this was not the case, as birds displayed strong variations in their approach. This reveals a clear role for experience in the nest-building behaviour of the Southern Masked Weaver.”

The research was published in the journal Behavioural Processes and was funded by the Leverhume Trust.


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